Will Wight’s Cradle series might be my current guilty pleasure read. These fast, light, action-packed, “martial arts” fantasy novels aren’t Brandon Sanderson masterpieces that will massively alter my understanding of how to write fantasy, they aren’t four thousand year old tomes of philosophy or history, they aren’t detailed technical analyses of obscure mathematical theorems (a textbook on the disc embedding theorem might hold the prize for the strangest book currently on my reading list), but every time a new one comes out (which happens with impressive frequency), I get a copy within weeks, and read it within days.
In this case, I actually read Reaper when I was supposed to be reading Writing 21st Century Fiction, the latter of which has so far proven less than insightful or engaging, but that’s a topic for a different review. Unfortunately, so much of what I would like to discuss about what Wight does in Reaper involves spoilers, and not just minor spoilers for the other books in the series, but major spoilers for massive reveals and plot twists that take place in this tenth installment in the series. By the way, we have reviews for the previous Cradle books here on the site; they were some of the early reviews that we did, back before I started being deliberate and consistent about weekly book review Thursdays, and I will provide links to those at the bottom of this post.
As a result of that whole spoiler consideration, I will instead be talking largely in vague terms and hypotheticals, and I will leave it to you, after you read the book, to link our discussion here to the real plot. However, if you are completely adverse to even the vaguest, most tangential spoilers, then you should probably go read the book, and then come back and read my review. Actually, if you’re that adverse to spoilers, you probably shouldn’t be reading reviews at all before you read the book, and that’s true for any book. Except biographies, because it’s pretty obvious how those inevitably end. Even if ones on Lincoln will always leave me sad all over again at the end.
Reaper was good. I don’t think it was the strongest in the series: it didn’t have as much character development as the last one, and while I think it should have been longer, I also felt like the pacing was a little off for the first half or so. The previous installment, Wintersteel, I thought did a better job of taking the short, tight, plot heavy format of the earlier parts of the series, and merging it with what I’d describe as a more mature, full-fleshed style. There is a little nitpicking I could do about the higher levels of the magic system, and the cosmic scale plotline, while receiving a lot more time and attention in this installment, felt almost diluted in its potency by that time and attention. Yet none of that significantly detracted from my enjoyment of the story, and in other respects it improved upon its predecessors. There was less flirting with the “fourth wall,” which I had found slightly off-putting in earlier books, and there was much less of a feeling of formula writing, which was an impression I’d gained from some of the early books.
Yet what overshadowed everything else I was planning to write about in this review was a massive twist, a monumental reveal, which happens at the end of the book. It’s the kind of subversion of the reader’s expectations that I suspect every author hopes to pull off at least once, and doing it well involves walking an incredibly tight line, balancing on a knife-edge. You need to have left enough hints in the rest of the manuscript that when the twist happens, readers think “I should totally have seen that coming, because x, y, and z,” but you also need to keep the hints vague or ambiguous or concealed enough that the reader isn’t going “yep, totally saw that coming, how did the characters not realize this, I knew this was going to happen since book one.”
It’s the sort of thing that otherwise masterful authors can struggle with finding the right balance, in part because it will always differ from reader to reader. There have been, to my reading, two moments like this so far in Stormlight Archives, and both of them, for me, were things that I saw coming. The first I predicted in the first book, but the second I only picked up on a little before the main reveal. For me, therefore, those reveals were a little too telegraphed, but my dad, reading the books in similar context and at a similar time, anticipated neither.
The other challenge in pulling something like this off successfully is that it necessitates the author withholding information from the reader. This is easier to do if the characters, or at least the viewpoint characters, are not aware of the information, either, but it becomes drastically more challenging to execute if a viewpoint character has to keep relevant information from the reader. Authors will often end up falling back on tricks like mental blocks to accomplish this, and it tends to feel hollow. Even if it’s a non-viewpoint character keeping the secrets, a sufficiently major character will leave the reader wondering why this important information was never communicated to a viewpoint character.
Wight boldly pulls off just such a reversal in Reaper. Within the context of just Reaper, I think he actually made it work. He had a massive twist with a major character, but he had laid enough hints throughout the novel that, as I analyzed with the advantage of hindsight, I found myself thinking “yes, that makes sense, I should have seen that coming.”
However, the scale of the twist is so immense that I still found myself questioning, and I have not read the rest of the series recently enough to know if there were suggestions there, too, or points that could be read as suggestions. It’s enough to make me want to go back and reread the others, but I don’t intend to do that until the last book comes out. I think there may have been a viewpoint once or twice from the perspective of the character in question, and that could partially undermine the reveal. There’s also the sheer scale of it, and the decision, though explained, could have used a little more emotional support to be convincing, in my opinion.
None of this overthinking on my part, though, should be thought of as undermining the reveal, or denying its potency. It was truly one of the best twists that I’ve experienced or seen executed in a very long time. One of the problems with the amount of time I’ve now spent studying plotting and writing is that it’s very difficult to truly surprise me with a book anymore; I know enough of the tricks and tools that authors use that I tend to see things coming just based on the story’s structural elements. What Wight pulls off in Reaper is therefore, to me, all the more impressive, and appreciated.
All of which leaves me with one, very important question. Wight’s writing has clearly improved drastically since some of his early works, like Traveler’s Gate, and even over the course of the Cradle series. I’m looking forward to the conclusion of the series (I think there are two more books planned?), but the more important question for me has become: “What will he write next?” He’s talked about going back to Traveler’s Gate, but with the talent that he has shown in Wintersteel and now Reaper, I would posit that he is in a prime position to launch into something completely new. Then again, he’s the author, and it’s his choice. Regardless, I hope that you read Cradle, and Reaper, soon.